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Looking for ROI in Unified Communications

With the economy top of mind, the decision about whether to deploy unified communications often comes down to one thing: return on investment. That ROI analysis can itself be divided into two areas: cost savings and productivity gains.The thing about UC cost savings, however, is that they tend to come from individual components of UC rather than UC itself. That is, the cost savings come from VoIP, conferencing and IM--not the unification of those disparate communications systems. So while the case certainly can be made that VoIP saves money over traditional PBX-based telephony, conferencing saves travel dollars, and IM saves both, it is difficult, if not impossible, to show how unifying the three saves hard dollars at the outset.

Those savings come from communications-enabled business processes, or CEBP. As companies find ways to use UC tools to speed contact, support collaboration, improve decision making and shrink cycle times, they will see hard-dollar savings as well. But those productivity benefits take time--as well as an honest evaluation of existing business processes.

Today, it's the rare company that is deploying UC with the express, and concurrent, intent to improve business processes. Most of the IT managers I speak with say they are looking to implement various UC components to save money, then investigate ways to leverage those deployments in other, more productive ways down the line.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Conferencing can save companies millions in travel costs every year; moving from a hosted conferencing service to an on-premises solution can reduce the costs of the technology itself; and running voice and video over IP can deliver significant savings on calls and video conferencing.

However, there's a catch in that equation for vendors: Companies that make and sell UC software and services also make and sell the individual components as stand-alone offerings. For instance, Cisco offers customers an on-site UC suite (with Personal Communicator as the client) as well as WebEx and Jabber as stand-alone conferencing and IM services; Microsoft sells OCS as well as its ongoing LiveMeeting service. So the question for those companies is: As customers deploy more and more UC-with the full intention of saving money in the process-how will that affect revenues for stand-alone component businesses? (Hint: They'll decrease.)